On February 15, thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of several Libyan cities demanding the departure of the strongman who has ruled the north African nation for more than four decades. The Libyan regime immediately ordered state-backed militias and mercenaries to put down the violence, with force. A bloody battle followed. As the crackdown began, and then escalated, it was early afternoon on February 16, halfway around the world in the State Department briefing room, when the Obama administration faced questions about how it regarded Muammar Qaddafi.
“Is Qaddafi a dictator?”
State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley, at the podium for his daily briefing, smiled at the question and turned his head to call on another reporter.
“Are you stumped?”
“I’m not stumped,” Crowley responded tartly.
“So what’s your answer to the question? Is he a dictator?”
Crowley smirked. “I don’t think he came to office through a democratic process.”
It wasn’t a trick question. Qaddafi has survived as the unelected leader of Libya through a combination of wanton brutality and strategic bribery. His reign has been characterized by the systematic suppression of his own people and the eager exportation of terror.
Crowley’s answer—uncertain, hesitant, and morally ambiguous—would come to symbolize the Obama administration’s response to the massacre in Libya. Within days there were numerous, credible reports that the Libyan regime was using fighter jets to strafe protesters. Regime-hired mercenaries from other African countries roamed the streets of Libyan cities exercising Qaddafi-style restraint. First they fired warning shots in the air. If that didn’t work, they fired at the ground near the protesters’ feet. And if the demonstrators still refused to disperse, the mercenaries gunned them down.
Early in the morning on February 21, Qaddafi’s son took to Libyan state television with a rambling speech that included warnings of further violence. “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet,” he said. A top Libyan diplomat who had defended Qaddafi for years at the United Nations warned of “genocide.” Ibrahim Dabbashi said: “His son yesterday somehow declared war on the Libyan people, and as we translate his words, I think he means that he will kill as much as he can from the Libyan people and he will destroy as much as he can from the country.”
A senior Obama administration official was more sanguine about the prospect of Qaddafi changing his ways. “We are analyzing the speech of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi to see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform,” the senior official said.
Meanwhile, Libyan diplomats across the world resigned their posts. Senior Libyan military officials refused orders to kill their fellow countrymen. And protesters urged the West—and the United States—to respond.
On February 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced generic “violence” and called for an end to the “unacceptable bloodshed” in Libya without directly condemning Qaddafi and those who were carrying out his orders. That same day, after nearly a week of tumult, the State Department issued its first recommendation that American embassy families leave Libya, according to NBC’s Chuck Todd.
The following day, at an interview in his Pentagon office with four journalists, including two from The Weekly Standard, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the ongoing slaughter in Libya was “an issue we have to address.”
“Has there been a NATO discussion about this at all?”
“No, no,” Gates said.
“Not even a pre-discussion discussion?”
“No. I think it’s all happened so fast.”
Gates was asked whether the United States could quickly establish a no-fly zone in Libya.
“Probably not. I mean we just don’t have the capabilities there in terms of, you know, the next day or two.”
“What’s in the bag? What do you have, what do we have that could speed there?”
Gates responded: “We don’t have—I don’t think we have a carrier in the [Mediterranean Sea] right now. The Enterprise is down off of Somalia. We’ve had the [USS] Kearsarge in the Red Sea, but mainly if some kind of an evacuation were needed from Egypt. But nothing that we would be able to do right away.”
The lack of urgency from the administration’s leading hawk was alarming.
“I think that, you know, as I say, it’s a very fast-moving situation,” Gates said, “and we’re obviously meeting two or three times a day on these things. So we are looking at the signs.”
The president spent February 22 in Ohio at meetings on his small business initiative. And though he spoke publicly several times throughout the day, President Obama said nothing about Libya.
Yet pressure mounted for the White House to do something or, at the very least, say something. White House press secretary Jay Carney took the podium on February 23 to answer numerous questions about Obama’s bizarre silence. When CBS News Radio’s Mark Knoller pushed Carney for a better sense of when Obama might speak on Libya, Carney explained that Obama would be meeting with Clinton that afternoon.
“This is just a scheduling issue,” Carney said. “As I said, the president will meet with Secretary of State Clinton this afternoon, his regular meeting, and they will obviously discuss Libya. We will have something to say out of that meeting, and if possible, the president will speak this afternoon or tomorrow.”
The White House apparently got its scheduling issues resolved, making it possible for the leader of the free world to address the massacre in Libya late that afternoon. Twenty-four hours after Gates had said he had two or three meetings a day on Libya, Obama said his national security team had been working “around the clock” on the crisis. The team had prepared for Obama a “full range of options”—presumably Obama’s way to let Qaddafi know that a military response was possible.
If Qaddafi had been worried that he might see American jets overhead or even U.S. Marines on the shores of Tripoli, the plans Obama announced no doubt came as a relief. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns, the president said, would be traveling to Europe for consultations with allies, and five days later Secretary Clinton would be flying to Geneva for additional meetings.
If that sounds like a State Department-heavy approach to the situation, it was. The State Department, having failed to remove its embassy personnel before Tripoli was a warzone, told the White House that any show of strength, even a strong condemnation of Qaddafi, risked the lives of Americans in country. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the United States had pulled its ambassador from Libya in January—leaving the embassy without a leader. So State had urged a cautious approach. The prospect of another American hostage crisis was paralyzing.
The administration defended this extraordinary picture of weakness by pointing out that a more forceful response had to wait until all Americans were evacuated from Libya—an argument that might have been more convincing if every American had been safely out of Libya when President Obama spoke. They were not. The Americans were stranded and helpless aboard a ferry that could not depart because of bad weather.
Think about that. The State Department spokesman couldn’t say whether Muammar Qaddafi is a dictator. An administration official saw in a speech promising war the possibility of peace. Despite tumult and unrest in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, the Obama administration apparently made few preparations to evacuate diplomatic personnel and their families and did virtually no planning for the possibility of a regime-led slaughter. The president did not speak out about the unfolding crisis because it didn’t fit his schedule. He responded by flying diplomats to Europe for meetings.
The president found his footing after a slow start on Egypt. And for a moment it seemed that the reactive, almost passive foreign policy that guided his first two years would change.
It did not. Which leads to one question: Is Barack Obama afraid of American power?
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.